Someday, go to Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market and try to get a glimpse of the tuna auction. Unfortunately one can't really get in anymore—tourists trying to climb on tuna like Trigger and generally disrupting business put an end to that. Even if you could, you wouldn't know what was going on. There are screams, shouts, hand gestures, hat adjustments, buyers and sellers striking deals in a sophisticated and nuanced language all their own. Bluefin tuna are at the center of all activity, some fetching hundreds of dollars per pound. Some have sold for more than $100,000.
Outside the garage-like doors that separate the auction from the rest of Tsukiji are throngs of people hoping to see the action. I have stood outside those doors and felt that same charge. I have been chased from the area by market security and come back to be chased again. It is exciting, and for a fish enthusiast like me it is nearly irresistible. But my mind has now changed after I read a New York Times Magazine article, "Tuna's End," written by Paul Greenberg, author of the soon to be released Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.
Mr. Greenberg lays out a compelling set of arguments in the giant bluefin's defense. He is clearly a man who holds this fish dear in his heart. Near the close of his article, he puts us on the deck of the Sensation, a sport fishing vessel from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. He is fishing with the Tag-A-Giant Foundation, a non-profit that studies the migration of bluefins. Greenberg wrote these words after his experience catching, tagging, and releasing his first bluefin:
For the first time in my life I felt tuna flesh for what it was: a living, perfect expression of a miraculous adaptation. An adaptation that allows bluefin to cross-oceans at the speed of a battleship. An adaptation that should be savored in its own right as the most miraculous engine of a most miraculous animal, not as food.
I stopped serving bluefin about five years ago. In the face of so much irrefutable science calling attention to its disappearance, how could I not? Bluefin is easy to covet for a chef. But as a chef who has coveted it myself, I think it is time we all said enough is enough.
Bluefin tuna is not a staple. There is no one nation or group of people who will starve if bluefin are no longer commercially harvested. Bigeye and yellowfin—tuna species that mature faster and reproduce more readily—are fine substitutes for those who need to eat red-fleshed fish. Bluefin, in contrast, is a luxury. I would hope that at some point we afford the bluefin the same sort of respect we offer animals like pandas and mountain gorillas. We have pushed those species to the point of extinction, and now we are helping them come back.
Fish are perhaps easier to exploit. They don't make cute purrs and growls and they don't have adorable furry offspring--I get it. But I hope that in 30 years, as a retired chef, I might be able to enjoy a grilled piece of bluefin in good conscience, knowing that a species in peril was pulled back from the brink with firm management, strict regulation, and adherence to quotas. Right now that seems like a long shot: mighty as they are, bluefins are no match for the forces allied against them. There are simply too many people making too much money. What might save the bluefin is a ban on export. If nations the world over were cut off from the lucrative Japanese market, demand and prices would fall, and with that fishing pressure on remaining stocks.
We Americans have already demonstrated the ability to protect highly threatened fisheries. A five-year moratorium in the latter part of the '80s helped save the striped bass for the Mid-Atlantic states: the biomass of female breeding striped bass was estimated in 2004 at 55 million pounds, nearly 25 million pounds above the threshold for sustainability. Strict federal fisheries management measures are improving the condition of the swordfish fishery in the North Atlantic; swordfish biomass is currently 5 percent above target, and is considered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to be fully "restored."
Could these success stories foretell the future of the bluefin? It seems within our abilities to manage the resources that remain in our oceans. Bluefin conservation is a global issue that would require cooperation from nations who fish and those that simply consume. But here in the U.S. we could put our foot down and simply say we are through fishing for them. The bluefins of the Western Atlantic are ours to save. And if bluefins are able to breed in the Gulf of Mexico in spite of the mess that BP has created, and if we allow them to migrate up and down the Eastern Seaboard unfettered, then perhaps we will have given them a chance. Carl Safina, marine biologist and President of the Blue Ocean Institute, wrote this in December 2008: "The United States could immediately fix this problem. It has full control of the west Atlantic population's Gulf of Mexico spawning ground. Yet the killing continues, while U.S. fishery managers stonewall all criticism on the matter."
If we as Americans say "no thanks" to bluefin at sushi bars and "no thanks" to bluefin in restaurants, then chefs won't buy bluefin. Tell a friend, perhaps write a letter to your Senator or congressman, or write to the UN. Believe me—as a chef, there is nothing more painful then watching fish spoil because it won't sell. Say it with me and repeat: "no thanks."